Getting Started Basics for Your Mobile Cabin

Getting Started Basics for Your Mobile Cabin.. 1

Starting Small 1

Not sure what you really want to be doing with your life?. 1

Quick and Inexpensive Mobile Cabins. 1

How Much Money Is a Lot?. 2

An Overview of Price Ranges. 2

What Do You Really Need?. 3

Basic Functional Needs. 3

Providing for the Basic Functional Needs. 3

Propane. 3

The Kitchen. 4

Washing Up. 4

Heating and Ventilation. 4

Lighting and Electric Power 5

The All Purpose Bed and Storage. 5

Security. 6



There are 3 related online documents for Mobile Cabins:

Getting Started Basics for Your Mobile Cabin – provides an overview and covers the fundamentals

Mobile Cabin Concepts and Issues – provides in-depth discussion and analysis of the concepts behind designing and living in mobile cabins

Resources for Creating and Using Your Mobile Cabin – provides links to suppliers and more information to support building and living in mobile cabins


Starting Small


Mobile Cabins don’t have to cost huge amounts of money. What really costs a lot is to be living a high standard of living, and to expect to continue to do so while on the road.


By simplifying your lifestyle, then figuring out what the critical elements are, and then looking for simple solutions, you can significantly reduce the cost of the Mobile Cabin.


Unless you are real sure what you want and need, start small and used – you can always sell it and try something different. The taxes and loss of value don’t cost nearly as much when reselling something small bought used compared to reselling something large that was bought new.

Not sure what you really want to be doing with your life?

Put your heirlooms into storage, trade you car in on a used van, take a few months rent, and turn the van into a Mobile Cabin. With a cell phone and post office box, you can still communicate with the rest of the world – if you want to.


Then you will really have the freedom to check out many places and options.

Quick and Inexpensive Mobile Cabins


The “Quick and Inexpensive Mobile Cabin” approach can be a great solution for:

How Much Money Is a Lot?

Everybody has a different idea of what a huge amount of money is, so this needs to be clarified before going further. Keep in mind that a RV has to cost more than the van body or truck frame it is based on.


First off, at the very least, you need a reliable vehicle in reasonable repair. Breaking down near home where you can be towed back, and get on with life is one thing. Being on the road (where you don’t know anybody or any reliable mechanics) when your home breaks down, is a completely different story. So I would rather sleep in a sleeping bag, cooking on a camp stove, in the back of a really reliable van, than be driving around in a nice RV with a worrisome noise coming from the engine, or transmission, or rear end, or steering. Driving a broken down vehicle on long road trips is likely to cost you more in the long run than buying a good one, or paying to have all the critical components rebuilt before starting an extended road trip.


Check Consumer Reports for reliability information. Both Ford and Toyota have good records for reliability. Honda has a great record for reliability, but it is designed for a perfect ride on perfect highways. Both Ford and Toyota also have good reputations for ruggedness, and even if you will be staying on paved roads, a Mobile cabin is likely to see rougher use than a commuter car.


Cars Direct is a good way to get a quick idea of prices, and they provide high and low ranges for used vehicles based on your zip code.


If you are willing to travel, the southwest is a great place to buy because a lot of people go there for the winter and shop, and because there isn’t much rainy weather or salt on the roads to corrode away used vehicles.

An Overview of Price Ranges

Don’t take this as the absolute truth – do your own research. This is supplied in case you didn’t have any idea of the relative costs of different vehicle options. In this case, it will help you decide where to start investigating.


If you do decide to tow a trailer, you will get more towing power per dollar in a pickup or cargo van than in a SUV or passenger van.


What Do You Really Need?


These are functional needs that apply to any ongoing life in an apartment, tent, or Mobile Cabin. However the discussion and analysis focuses on meeting them in a basic way in the Mobile Cabin context.


There are other needs that might be critical in your life like listening to music or balancing your checkbook. The critical point is that once the functional needs described below are met, you will have many choices on how you use these resources without any additional improvements. This could easily include listening to music or balancing your checkbook.

Basic Functional Needs

Providing for the Basic Functional Needs


For traveling in the United States, propane should be your first energy choice over white gas, Coleman fuel, kerosene, or electricity.


Propane fumes are no more explosive that those of white gas or Coleman fuel. It is much safer because there aren’t ever any spills of the liquid fuel, nor is there a big flare-up as when a stove is started with a liquid fuel. Also, the propane tank you attach to your vehicle is big enough that you can cook many meals without having to refill it, or pump up the pressure. You just turn the burner on and light it, and turn the burner off when you are done.


Also using propane is much cheaper than the large generator or solar array it would take to run the same appliances from electricity.


The key appliances that should be running off propane are: refrigerator and freezer, stove, space heater, and water heater.


If you are adding permanently installed propane appliances to your Mobile Cabin, unless you are really sure you know what you are doing, you should have a RV service facility add the propane piping and connections. You can do all the framing and cabinet work, so all they have to do is make the propane connections. A slightly crooked counter is a completely different problem than a slightly leaky propane connection.


It is a good idea to have a propane leak detector installed near the floor where fumes would build up if there is a leak.

The Kitchen

I like the 3 burner stove top I am currently using. Reaching across a lit burner to a back burner is where you can start making mistakes. I use the back burner for occasional simmering, and mostly cook on the front 2 burners. You can do a lot with 3 burners, and they fit into a pretty compact space.


However if you are working on really compact layout, you can use a 2 burner stove top with a front and back burner and knobs on the front. This will use up only about a foot of your counter width.


An oven uses up quite a bit of space, and costs more than the burners. In a small inexpensive Mobile cabin it should be considered optional.

Washing Up

Running water costs a lot of money, weight, and space. There are the fresh, gray, and black water tanks. The toilet goes into the black water tank, and the rest of the water goes into the gray water tank. Water requires a pump and water heater. Then there is the plumbing to interconnect all of this with the sinks, shower, and toilet.


I’ve been using a 6 gallon water jug and a plastic dish tub for the last 2 years, and it has been working out okay. This started when I went on a trip where it was cold enough I had to drain and winterize the plumbing, and then get by without running water. It turns out getting by without it was less hassle than it was to use it because of having to fill and dump the tanks all the time, and winterize and un-winterize each year.


A lot of places now have showers, and if it is too public to use the bushes, there are usually bathrooms. If you really want, you can get what is essentially an air tight commode from Northwest River Supplies under “toilet systems”.


More suggestions:

Heating and Ventilation

There needs to be at least one ceiling vent to let out the hot air on hot days, and the combustion gases from the stove.


There needs to be 2 windows that open on opposite sides so there will be some cross ventilation. The windows in the driver’s area won’t work because they aren’t screened.


The small furnaces that come with RVs make lots of noise, use lots of electricity, and create very little heat.


Many fuel powered space heaters, portable and installed, aren’t vented. Opening the windows to avoid dieing of carbon monoxide poisoning lets all of the heat out. A vented heater is critical. I like radiant heaters because if you are real cold, you can sit right in front of them without turning the whole place into an oven.


Backwoods Solar sells a propane wall heater that doesn’t use electricity, and uses convection to vent itself.


A & L Enterprises sells a platinum vented catalytic propane heater that is "The only catalytic heater approved for use in recreational vehicles." It is very compact and uses a very small amount of electricity.

Lighting and Electric Power

Adding solar power is great for the long run, but it is expensive and requires a lot of knowledge, unless you pay somebody to install an automatic system. Both the installation and automation cost even more.


All vehicles have a pretty powerful alternator to produce electricity. They can’t run big power tools, but they run headlights, stereo, fans, wipers, etc. all at the same time without running the battery down.


You can add a second battery, a deep cycle battery, which can be charged when the vehicle is running, and used to power 12 volt DC lights and appliances while you are stopped.


I would add a switch to disconnect the cabin battery from the vehicle while parked, so if you run the cabin battery down, you can still start the vehicle, then after the vehicle is started, use the switch to reconnect the cabin battery to the vehicle so it can be recharged.


There is a whole range of computer and personal hygiene equipment that runs off the cigarette lighter for people who travel a lot for work.


There are inverters to convert the 12 volts DC into 120 volts AC so regular household appliances can be used. However the bigger inverters are pretty expensive, aren’t 100% efficient, and need a good sized battery bank to support them.


I use a 180 watt inverter that can plug into the cigarette lighter. This can run the charger for all kinds of battery powered tools and laptops. I just make sure I charge up all the batteries while I am driving.


Most bathrooms at rest stops and RV parks have outlets to plug in hair dryers and shavers these days. Hair dryers take a lot of power, more than a small system can handle. You can always sit in front of the wall heater and run your fingers through your hair to dry it. This is better for your hair and ears than the hair dryer. At home I dry my hair this way in front of the stove in the winter, and don’t own a hair dryer. My hair is down to the middle of my back, so this should work for most people.

The All Purpose Bed and Storage

Besides being a place to sleep, in a small place, a bed can be the all purpose single piece of furniture.


The higher you put the bed, the more storage space you create underneath it. As long as you can sit upright and stretch, without knocking your head on anything, any extra storage space under the bed is a bonus.


Keep in mind that better mattresses tend to be thicker, so if you set the bed height based on a thin cheap mattress, later after your bones and back start aching and you get a better, thicker mattress, you might loose a critical few inches of head room.


Usually Rubber Maid storage containers cost a dollar or so more than the cheaper ones. The cheaper ones are more brittle which will be a problem when using them every day as an alternative to cupboards and drawers. So the slightly higher cost will pay off in the long run.


Use shallow tubs for smaller things. Buying 2 or more stackable shallow tubs works much better than 1 deep one. Having to dig through more than 3 layers to find stuff usually means after spending a lot of time looking for something you know you have, you dump out the whole thing to look for it.


Also, using the clear ones makes it much easier to spot which tub you are looking for.


Use a couple bungee cords to secure the storage tubs while driving. If you don’t, sooner or later you will have swerve to avoid something, and then discover you stuff all over the place when you stop next.


The more secure you believe yourself to be, the less stress you will experience and the more freedom you will feel to explore places unfamiliar to you and to stay in a larger number of locations.


This sense of security is real and has value. Even more real is how much disruption there would be to your life if your stuff turns up missing, or you can’t adequately respond to aggressive people.


I put tents and popup camper trailers in the same category. They don’t work well in wet or cold weather, have to be setup and taken down every time you move, and lots of people are willing to use a knife to cut a new doorway in the fabric. This doesn’t seem sustainable enough for a prolonged period.


Besides it taking more effort and making more noise to break into a solid vehicle like a trailer or RV, there seems to be more basic inhibition to do this than to cut into a tent.


If you are in a travel trailer, it is harder to notice if somebody is breaking into your tow vehicle than it is to notice that somebody is breaking into the other end of your RV.


There is a great tactical advantage to being able to jump into the driver’s seat and leave quickly, without having to go outside to get to the drivers’ seat. Even if you have a camper on a pickup, there are pass-through windows that would allow you to slip like a seal from the camper to drivers’ seat.


Finally there is something wonderfully discreet about being able to park your RV, stop the engine, pull the curtains, and get on with your life. When you are in an RV, who you are, what you are doing, and even if you are just parking or staying for the night isn’t obvious to the whole world like it is for trailers and tents.


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Last updated: August 27, 2002